Jack was sitting in the street on a Sunday in the early spring when I first saw him. To start with I hadn’t noticed him, low and shrouded in the dusty midday gloom. His position emerged from the shadows at the concrete grey top of a main road that always feels like a dark alley. It is both a main road and the end of the shopping area, so it hosts the corner of a local department store, a grubby supermarket and a car park, then goes on to the mainly residential stretch that takes you to a new area in about a mile. It also has one of the main bus stops for going in that direction outside the supermarket. The trollies all lined up right where the bus stop is, force people to navigate a busy strip that always smells of sour milk.
Even on a sunny day, like the day I met Jack, that road looks overcast because the department store shadows the whole pavement with a towering, cladded overhang. People flow along this part only focused on their destination, which is mainly car, bus, supermarket or office, and it is hard to even look up to the sky. Harder still to look across the traffic at the tiny shops and gym on the other side of this oppressive estuary.
So while it is a place that most of us don't seem to hang around in, apart from those waiting an impossibly long time for buses to get through the lights and actually turn the corner to the stop, someone who needs shelter might look at the terrain quite differently. That overhang that cuts out the sky, for me, provides genuine protection from even quite heavy rain. It also shadows hot sun, and the displays in the department store windows provide the tiniest bit of light.
It might also be a good place to sit to earn money. While the grim conditions only encourage people to hurry past, there is a general flow in the direction of food or escape routes. Having to look up and walk around anyone standing, or preferably sitting, becomes compulsory. That means people slow down and at least notice. From my days of selling lipstick in a department store, I know that is at least helpful even if it doesn’t seal the deal.
So why didn’t I notice Jack at first? Well I’m used to the area, so I know all of the above and my thoughts were firmly on getting to the supermarket as quickly as possible because I had to drag my food right back to the other side of town to load up my bike. The person who is usually standing in that position is the Big Issue seller, and daughter of the Big Issue seller from the next town along. They are locals and a celebrated part of the community but I don’t know them well enough to stop and chat to, and I haven’t usually bought the magazine from them. So that is whom I expect to see out of the corner of my eye.
The moment I walked right past Jack, was the first time I realised he didn’t have a floral headscarf, nor copies of the Big Issue. He was in fact sitting hunched over a piece of paper and drawing. It made me glance across the road for a moment, something I never do at that point of scurrying towards food. I wanted to know what he was drawing as I peered across the traffic and to the newsagent opposite. I couldn’t really work it out but his manner had looked like the stance of observational drawing, and I pondered it all the way around the isles in the supermarket.
Amongst other things I’m a drawing teacher, and I studied drawing, so it always interests me when I see other people drawing. Drawing outside, in the street, in public, urban sketching was never the thing I focused on but I’m always envious of artists who do that naturally. It produces atmospheric work and mainly I think I romanticise the idea of the lifestyle of it. Maybe it’s too much arduous work and too much on display for me though.
To sit with a coffee and write in the midst of life is to put yourself less on display. I am sure people who see me writing anything in public just think I’m doing work admin. Most of the time they’d be right. Yet if I see anyone else drawing in public, of course I’m attracted to the performance of it, and the magical novelty of this simple focused activity.
So on the way back to my bike I went over to Jack to find out what he was drawing and why. I feel there doesn’t exactly need to be a reason why someone might be drawing but I suppose there often is, and people I know who sketch in public say that it sometimes does start conversations. The first thing that surprised me was that it wasn’t observational drawing, despite his attitude of peering across the road. Maybe that pose was just thought rather than observation of the exact angles and structures of the newsagent. His materials were scrap paper, what looked like old copier paper and a pencil. He was happy to show me his other drawings, so he went in to a battered carrier bag I assumed carried his life in and tipped out a huge collection. It was a truly exciting collection of abstract line drawing that we went through for the next few minutes.
While he was getting it out, some of it started to blow away, so we had to chase it down and return it to the Sainsburys bag it was in. During the time he rearranged it all to show me, I started looking at the corrugated card signs he’d resurrected around his pitch.
One said he wasn’t on drugs. I always get a twinge of anger at this sign, that anyone without a roof over their head has to even address the drug issue when asking for a few crumbs of change from someone’s wallet. I know there are a range of arguments about this and unfortunately I have to admit that I am too ignorant of the mechanics of such destitution to understand any of them properly. I am lucky that in my forties there has never been a night in my life that I didn’t have somewhere dry and sheltered to sleep, so all I really know is what I read about homelessness by those who are better informed. I also see people on the streets, so I suppose that’s my most direct experience away from journalism.
I do know a couple of people who have slept on benches or in parks at various times, but drugs and/or alcohol were always involved, and for the most part things got resolved quickly. Against this background I just don’t think I’m fit to judge anyone whose life involves pure survival on the streets. So in principle even if someone is injecting crack right in front of my face, I don’t see why it would stop me giving them some money. Lets face it, whatever we give from our pockets and wallets isn’t going to be enough to rent somewhere safe in the city, so can I blame anyone spending that on drugs again? I don’t know what I would do in that plight but I’ve always suspected I’d just descend in to violent criminality. At least someone begging for money isn’t doing that, so they probably have more moral backbone than I do, just less cash.
I’ve heard more knowledgeable people that say you’re just enabling someone by giving them money for drugs, and that like my experience with people I’ve known, drugs often get people in to these situations in the first place. It is better to buy food and drink (which I mostly prefer too) or to give to a recognised charity. This is probably all true, but even when you give to charities (of which there are so many thousands and obviously not all homelessness ones), you’re confronted in a different way when you see a human being sitting in front of you in the street and you know that they are colder, hungrier or less comfortable than you are, and that it’s probably going to stay that way.
Like many people I think I find it hard to take that sensible route, and weigh it all up rationally because how do I even know that advice is really right? And like Jack’s sign says, maybe that someone sitting in front of you isn’t even on drugs? And who am I to moralise if they are, when I and most of my compatriots were teenagers throughout the Acid House years, and Second Summer of Love. It pits rational instruction against the emotion of being human, and that’s a hard situation to be in. So people either give money and feel bad or walk past ignoring the person and feel bad, but either way it’s not nearly as hard as being on the streets. And I can’t pretend that I give anything to every single homeless person I see because there are so many now. Really, I barely give anything. Yet when I see signs proclaiming the person is not on drugs, they seem to be designed to squeeze out a few drops of compassion from people passing because it’s so hard otherwise. It is sad and makes me angry that I am in the 5th richest country in the world, and in the capital, and still we live like this. Then I suppose I either give money and move on, or I just move on. Seeing Jack drawing made me linger longer this time.
Jack’s other and larger sign, which was drawn out in multi coloured lettering detailed recent government cuts and said “it could be you.” Most people in the affluent suburb I live in maybe don't think it can be them, or maybe that’s just an assumption. Yet I’m always aware of the precariarity of our economic life that seems to be getting worse. These days I am reminded of reading Howard’s End for English A Level, and the plight of the clerk who could disappear in to dismal poverty overnight. I think by the end of the book he had done, and thoroughly fallen out of the story and from importance. In those English Literature lessons we were taught about how different life was at the turn of the century for teens like us, when people were only just emerging from the Victorian fog of industry and pestilence. We knew we were privileged to have been born in the 1970s, where a clerk losing his job did not have to starve, and might even still be worthy of writing about.
In the 21st Century and by my 40s I have reached the heady heights of being a college tutor as well as freelancer in my field, and as academic staff permanently stuck on a temporary contract. I have a running joke with my friend who works in a university library about her damned permanent contract. She’d swap her hourly rate with mine and I’d swap my lack of planning ability and unpaid admin with her steady income. I regularly run the gauntlet of my classes being cancelled, but I am enrolled on the pension scheme, so I suppose it’s like a posh 0 hours contract really. Me and half the academic staff in the country it seems.
I can’t plead poverty in the real sense of course. I truly love my 0 hours job, which has at least paid most of my bills this academic year, and like Jack I have something else that starts conversations and that I can sell. Unlike him I’ve never been on the streets. Yet if over 10 years of higher education gets you a posh 0 hours contract these days, I really do think his sign is right and that homelessness can happen to anyone who isn’t independently wealthy now. That does seem like a return to Victorian times, unfortunately without the large-scale philanthropy, and it brings me back to that sense of unpleasantness about being in the 5th wealthiest country in the world. Yet these days it would seem we are all Leonard Bast.
Once we’d gathered up Jack’s work he talked me though it all. When I had been pondering this in the supermarket, wondering as always why someone sits and draws at all, it occurred to me that sitting at the side of the road all day without another home to go to is probably as boring as it is desperate. Yet these drawings were full of life and energy, and from much more than just a place of emptiness or boredom.
Most of my own drawing practice in recent years has been concerned with wondering what leaks out of the body when you pick up a pen or pencil, and I’ve often written about it being the same for me as writing. This human leakage is also what interests me in other people’s work. These were the kinds of drawings that evidenced that; something of the raw and unexplained human essence and not a pretty, well-observed street scene. Yet unlike my own drawing, which is messy, organic, and grows in a viral fashion, Jack’s lines were clean, ordered and graphic.
The one I chose to buy sometimes reminds me of a toad, sometimes and alien and sometimes a cockpit. It also seems to have a graphic art style that would be at home in the comic book world. It was the one I liked best and I only had one note on me, but I could have easily bought a few. Being a screen printer, I’ve pondered this drawing over many months and feel that I want to add blocks of colour to it. As it is someone else’s work I’m most likely going to keep it as it is. I haven’t framed it yet but I probably will soon.
Eyeing the bulging carrier bag, and creased bits of paper, I asked Jack what he did with all his work. Unlike me he obviously doesn’t have a studio room to keep it in. If an artist is someone with a storage problem (someone told me Louise Bourgeouis said this but I can’t find any accreditation), that must also be the case for an artist without storage space. More of a problem.
Jack told me that he sometimes sold his work, which is how I came about being able to buy a piece, because I’d initially just intended on giving him some money. Unfortunately recently he hasn’t been selling as much as he used to, which might just be part of the current retail downturn. One thing I have in common with Jack right now is that Saatchi doesn’t seem to collect either of our artworks, and so we don’t have the level of success that insulates you from changes in the bottom end of the market.
On buying a piece, he let me set my own price, which was the only note I had in my pocket. So I’m a collector of his work now, and if I see Jack again I’ll buy another piece. I would urge you to at least go and have a look at his work if you ever see him. Some of the of the drawings are interesting, some are beautiful or perplexing. All of them come from a human experience quite different from my own and yet we both sit and produce lines that evidence something inside. For me, my lines more often than not form words these days, although I still do plenty of drawing. I like stories, and flights of fancy and sometimes I just need to do that to release the pressure, like letting blood. I wasn’t able to speak to Jack for long enough to find out why he really draws but his prolific drawing practice is as interesting as anything I’ve seen in a long time.
When I knew that I wanted to write about this experience, I had thought maybe it could drum up a bit more business for Jack. He had signed his work for me and told me his surname, and freely admitted that it is good for him to sell his work. Yet I’m reticent to put this kind of information on the Internet. Those of us who travel in the digital Wild West frontier do so by their own choice. Yet I was reading only yesterday (in that frontier) that Oxford council are planning to fine the homeless £2500 for leaving their sleeping bags in certain spots around the city. A well meaning but ignorant drawing teacher could get caught up in the self-satisfied romance of buying a piece of artwork from someone they met on the streets without paying heed to this type of ideological plundering. Apparently blocking fire escapes was a concern, but the cost of finding, fining and fruitlessly prosecuting the penniless people who are littering with their homes must outweigh the cost of building a couple of dry storage units somewhere?
So I’ll just leave this by saying that Jack’s drawings are really interesting, and visually compelling, and if I ever see him again I'll add to my collection and be excited to learn the current direction of his practice. If you ever see someone with those cardboard signs drawing in the street please go up and have a look at what’s in the bag. Buy and frame something if you like it, or donate some materials. He had a firm, dry handshake when I left with my prize, and it’s not often you get to shake the hand of the artist who drew the piece of work you have just bought.